Monday, April 30, 2012

Risky or Not: Here We Come

The topic du jour is whether Obama was risking his political career by sending the SEALs to hunt down Osama Bin Laden.  Micah Zenko looks at the past and argues that Presidents have not been punished for launching failed raids.  The social science on starting wars pretty clear--democratic initiators who lose tend not to get re-elected, but raids/short-term missions like Abbotland and Desert 1 might be different.

However, as James Joyner notes:  "In fairness, Jimmy Carter didn't have to deal with the 24/7/365 outrage machine that exists today. There was no Rush Limbaugh, no Fox News, no blogs, and no Twitter. "  This much I agree with.  But the next sentence not so much: "But even in today’s toxic political climate, most Americans would have applauded a SEAL raid to get the man behind 9/11 even if it had ended in catastrophe."

No, I disagree most vehemently.  "Most Americans"??  Given that a solid minority (what 30% these days) have big questions about Obama's background despite the evidence that exists that he is an American-born Christian, I am pretty sure that a failed mission would not be applauded by most Americans.  The most popular news network would be quite gleeful in ripping apart the President and finding random retired military officers to ponder how the President could send soldiers to their deaths for a political stunt.  Yes, the public has a short memory, but failure in this mission would have been played by Fox day-in and day-out until election night. 

Indeed, I often think that it might have been a good thing for Bush to be President on 9/11 and not Gore.  Why?  Because I am not sure the Republicans would have rallied around the President but instead would have launched impeachment efforts.  The country might have been torn apart at a time where unity was kind of important. 

Whether Obama did the social science or not on past missions is not clear, but it would seem to be the case that he probably believed that his presidency might ride on the mission.  Would a Republican have made the same decision?  Some of them certainly.  Others?  Who knows.  We do know that a President Biden would not have done it.

It is interesting that this is being discussed much since Obama's foreign policy record is not a weakness but a strength, so attacking this piece of it seems like a waste of firepower.  But I guess if you are running against Obama, you have to attack the entire record.  Good thing Romney does not have a record to run against.   Oops.

What The Canadian Forces Learned from Afghanistan

I have another post at the Canadian International Council.  This time, it is on the lessons I am guessing the Canadian Forces are drawing from the Afghanistan experience.  This is part of larger series of pieces CIC is putting together on the future of the Canadian Forces.  Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1st, noon), I will be web-chatting (see the CIC's twitter feed for details) with Roland Paris about this stuff.

Obviously, there are more lessons than the three I drew, but I had to keep the piece short and punchy.  If you have suggestions or questions, comment on the piece there or comment here.

Random Pop Culture Tangent and Summer Movie Prep

An op-ed piece referring to Obama as a Warrior led to a twitter thread about Presidents being Warriors.  The obvious examples that came up were Harrison Ford's President on Air Force One and, the one I suggested, Bill Pullman as the President in Independence Day.   Which led to a follower posting this clip:

Of course, the best part of Independence Day was not the movie or this scene but the Saturday Night Live sketch it inspired.  The sketch has Bill Pullman's President from the movie running for re-election engaged in a debate with Bob Dole (played by Norm MacDonald if I remember correctly).  Pullman is talking about post-alien attack jobs programs, mostly referring to clearing rubble from cities, and says "average American."  Which lead to "Dole" jumping in with "The Average American is Dead!"  Because, well, most cities were obliterated during the alien attack.  I love this quote because so many movies end happily despite the destruction rained down during the movie.  The follow up to Independence Day was the Day After Tomorrow where pretty much everyone above the Mason-Dixon line in the US and similarly across the globe is dead.  But we are happy because Dennis Quaid saved his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) and, more importantly, Emmy Rossum, plus some other random New Yorkers.  Even Wall-E has the same basic flaw--we destroyed the earth but some robots are in love!  Yeah!

I am pointing all this out now as summer movie season is commencing.  The Avengers undoubtedly will save the Earth from Loki's forces, but the collateral damage in NY is likely to be forgotten when the team hoists some mead at the end of the movie.  Same with the rest.  So, as you watch the endings, consider: is the Average American (or Earthling or Alien) dead? 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Tyranny of the Minority

I usually complain about the threat of tyranny of the (local) majority in Quebec, but the student boycott reveal something else:

Note, the data seems to come from CLASSE, the most extreme of the three student groups "representing" the boycotters.

So, we have a significant group of folks but a minority nonetheless making significant claims that we must not take entirely at face value. 

The government just compromised--extending the time for the increase in tuition to seven years.  The students, my guess, are likely not to budge as they seem mighty committed to no increase at all.  Suspending the increase, which is what the PQ and some other folks have advocated, would be a total surrender, since it would be very hard for the government then to initiate increases down the road.

But damn this is costing Montreal, Quebec, and the students a lot of money.  Tends to violate basic stuff about costly behavior in bargaining.... or does it?

Sex or Gender?

To brutally stereotype, men get confused about whether something is about sex or gender.  Exhibit A is the "sex" issue of Foreign Policy magazine.  To be clear, FP is a great magazine and a fantastic, award-winning website.  But they blew it on this one.  I will not get into it, as Charli Carpenter has a devastating post that lays out where the editors went wrong.  Also, see Megan Mackenzie's take on it.  Charlie's footnote is actually most instructive (and the rest of the piece is as well):
*Sex: biological maleness or femaleness. Sexuality: pertaining to sexual relations. Gender: socially constructed notions about masculinity and femininity. Gender Analysis: analyzing the relationship between gender (see above), power hierarchies and sociopolitical outcomes. "Gendered" Analysis: basing an analysis of sociopolitical outcomes on gender myths and stereotypes. EG: "We can't hire women writers because there aren't enough qualified women" or "If the issue has women in it, it must be all about SEX!!!" See also this.
When I read some of the FP issue, including the fact that it was taking seriously some of these topics (if only for one issue), I was thinking how much progress has been made--if not in the world, then at least in the academic universe in which I dwell.  Then I got a comment on a post about rule #1 of academia: I was talking about treating the staff well,* but a commenter thought rule #1 was "not to have sex with the students."  I tried to distinguish that my rule number one required actions--to be nice to the staff--and that the commenter's rule was about not doing something I had no intention of doing anyway--that I would not rank as the top rule something that shouldn't be done.  But the commenter had a point--that even if I get frustrated about all the movies depicting every male professor as a predator, I recognize that the problem of sexual harassment has not gone away.  Then I saw this piece about the continued sexual harassment that still seems prevalent and even accepted.  I am not naive, and I know of such behavior in the 21st century, but I had thought things had gotten better.  Now I am not so sure.  
* Of course, given that department staffs are almost always mostly female, there are gender dynamics here as well.
 Let me briefly chart the gender dynamics I have witnessed in my career to suggest that things are both better and the same.  I will try to be careful about not identifying evil-doers--and, yes, I consider those who prey upon students to be doing evil as are those folks who diminish people due to their gender (or race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever). 

In my first steady position, one of my colleagues informed me, as if it were a perk, "they let you screw the students here."  He was not kidding.  It was not rampant, but one member of the department was clearly and thoroughly creating a hostile environment through his predation of the graduate students and he was clearly abetted by one of the senior people in the department.  The rest of the senior faculty were blind to it and were willing to carve out exceptions for this one person since he was extra-special.  Even after he was gone, it colored everything in the graduate program for quite a while.  
     To make matters worse, every yearly sexual harassment training session (a policy for all departments at the time) became a competition among some of the faculty about how best to mock the exercise and diminish the problem.  I swore after the last session, even though I had not yet gained tenure, that if this were to happen again, I would stand up and say: "if we could agree not to fuck our students, then perhaps we wouldn't find these sessions so problematic."  I never had the opportunity as the sessions did not take place again.
     The undergraduate classroom was gendered but in a different way.  Nearly every class I taught on security issues and foreign policy had a male to female ratio of about 8 to 2.  I am not sure why this was the case, but perhaps folks in Texas or in the 1990's perceived bombs and rockets and wars and such to be men's stuff.  The women in those classes sometimes spoke up, but often not so much as they were outnumbered by the louder men. 

     In my next academic job, things got much better.  The classes always had a much better mix--men were in the minority but not so outrageously out-numbered as the women in my previous post.  Participation was much more evenly distributed so that I stopped noticing as much.  The department had and has more women at the associate and assistant professor levels.  However, there is only one female full professor.
    The problem of harassment still existed.  The punishment would appear mild to any observer.  Indeed, one of the problems with cloaking everything in confidentiality is that the students know more than the colleagues about who is, well, an evil-doer.  The students talk about these things, but the profs cannot.  Whatever punishments are levied are invisible to anyone but the punished, so it is not clear to anyone that the university cares about the problem and has done anything about it--even if the university does care and has done something about it.  So, the messages sent are opaque at best. 

  In the profession at large, the demographics have changed remarkably since the time I started: it used to be that most of the women at the ISA and APSA seemed to be book reps.  But now more book reps are male, and junior faculty and young senior faculty are much more representative of the population--gender-wise.  Not enough female full professors yet, as I have learned of the phrase--leaky pipeline.  I have not heard a faculty member say that we ought not hire a woman since her husband has a job since sometime around 1998. 

  I used to joke that one could not legislate against love, so one could not restrict faculty and students from having relationships.  My graduate school had at least two or three couples among the faculty who had met when one partner was a prof and the other a grad student.  But the reality I have observed over the years is that the interactions in this area are more about sex and power than about love.  I may be careless in posting about this stuff, but I chose the word "predation" quite purposefully here.  No matter how educated we become, no matter how much the world of Mad Men seems alien to us (and yes, much progress has been made since the early 1960's), there is much left to be done. 

It was not my intention that my last four graduate students at McGill have been women, but it is a point of pride that they are thriving and succeeding.  I know that they will face a lot of crap in this business, but I also know that they know that I will always be there for them.  In my view, agreeing to be an adviser is akin to an unbreakable vow--a magical binding contract.  And as always, with great power, comes great responsibility. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kids Today

I have been griping a lot about the students in Quebec and their strike.  To be clear, I am still a big, big, big fan of McGill students.  Yesterday, I received this from the representatives of McGill's Political Science Students Association:

They gave me a McGill Ultimate Team disk, a hoodie, and this poster that they signed, complete with Zombie Steve.  I was most moved and touched by this.  As I have said before, I will miss these folks quite a bit. 

Then, after getting this package, the staff at McGill took me out for beer and dinner and dared me to share this dessert: Fried Mars Bar

It was actually very, very good. I was asked what would I remember in a few years about my time at McGill, and the undergrads will be at the top of the list with the staff right behind.   Overall, a terrific day as the countdown to Carleton and Ottawa continues.

Game of Thrones and US Politics

This is brilliant:
Game of Thrones and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Eelction

Best part: Renly and Santorum for a shared interest in homosexuality.

The Students are Revolting!

Always fun to double-play with the word revolting.  Last night's violence in Montreal is part of the larger conflict between "students" and the government over tuition hikes.  This has been going on for some and now escalating.  More smoke bombs into the metro, more confrontations with riot police. 

The key to remember here is that there is only one unitary actor here and barely that--the Quebec government.  Charest, his education minister Beauchamp and the police are mostly on the same page.  The students?  Not so much.  There are three groups representing the students.  There is now another group trying to represent the students who do not want to be boycotting classes, passing out forms to facilitate injunctions.  None of the three student organizations seems to have had a formal strike/boycott vote with quorums and secret ballots so when the newspapers say they "represent" 100,000's of students, I ponder the quality of representation.  Whose interests are being served by the loss of this semester?

On the other hand, to be fair to these organizations, the folks conducting the violence may not belong to any of these organizations, but are using the protests like they would any big hockey victory/loss--as an opportunity to be anarchists.  They don't need a reason, they don't have to justify or explain what they do, they just have to try to create disorder.  Well done. 

But, of course, the rock throwers, smoke-bomb droppers, and other folks are doing the cause of the students no favors as public opinion is now swinging heavily against the student groups.  I have already suggested that the student organizations try to alter their protests to provide less cover for the anarchists, but planning a big protest while a truce was in existence but ending was bad form.

The government is being accused of playing divide and conquer.  My first reaction is: the government has a strategy?  Woo hoo?!  The government seems unbending on tuition increases, and now that violence has broken out, the resistance has stiffened.  Otherwise, they are rewarding anarchy.  I cannot speak to the police tactics because it is hard to say for certain who is starting what, how much restraint is being exercised and so on.  All I know is that folks attaching themselves to the movement were dropping rocks onto a busy highway below a few days ago.  Police didn't force them to do that.  Even if the police are over-reacting (as they did in November on McGill's campus), two wrongs do not make a right, and the anarchists/whoever are very much in the wrong. 

The students and the Parti Quebecois are asking for a suspension of the tuition increase.  Well, they had a tuition freeze for about 13 years or so, which was then followed by very modest increases.  To suspend now would be to bring back the freeze, which would seem like a massive cave-in by the government and usher in another decade of shorting the universities of funding.  

Now that the tuition stuff is getting attached to bigger and bigger issues of anti-capitalism and all the rest,  we must keep things in perspective.  Calling this Quebec Spring just undermines the legitimacy of the effort since students here are not oppressed and do have the alternative of the ballot box, unlike the folks in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and all the rest last year.

Canada and Afghanistan: Clearing the Confusion

So, Canada may be doing more than expected and for longer than expected.  But let's not over-react, shall we?

First, there is the shocking discovery that there may be Canadian troops in Kandahar!  No, the CF does not have any units, respecting the will of parliament.  But Canadians are in exchange programs with other countries' armies, most especially the US and the UK, who happen to have most of the forces deployed to southern Afghanistan these days. 
         The key to understanding exchange programs is that the people inserted into another country's military are not just observers but fill a real job.  Yanking them out whenever the two countries are doing different things  (say one is trying to reclaim the Falkands and the other is "neutral" or one is invading Iraq and the other is staying out) is problematic.  So, Canada learned from the Falklands experience that letting a few military folks stay embedded is worth the hassle.  Otherwise, no exchange programs, no mil to mil relationships, more conflict/less cooperation when the two countries are actually in the field together, and so on.  Thus, there may be Canadians doing combat in Kandahar but as individuals in American or British units (or whoever else is flowing through the region).

Second, there is yesterday's news that the US is going to/has asked the Canadians and Aussies to deploy Special Operations Forces [SOF] to Afghanistan as everyone else exits.  I already posted two days ago that SOF boots do not count as boots on the ground, perhaps because these guys use hover-boots?  Prime Minister Harper has now said that no request has been made, no decision has been made, but is already criticizing the opposition (the NDP) for opposing it, comparing that to opposing involvement in World War II.  Alrighty.  The Harper statement (h/t to goes on with this:
all of the military missions committed to under this government have come before the House: the mission in Libya, which the House approved; we did not begin the mission to Afghanistan but the extensions of that mission. Certainly, should there be any other significant military missions, we are committed to getting the consent of Parliament before we act. That has been our action and that is what we will do in the future.” (emphasis is mine).
Funny thing this language is.  Come before the House?  Um, I believe not all have been subject to a vote.  Also, "significant" implies that insignificant missions would not require the consent of Parliament.  Such as only a small detachment of SOFs to be sent as trainers?  Hmmm.   And, of course, now that the Conservatives have a majority of seats in Parliament, they can have a vote anytime Harper wants.

There is far more continuity on these things than not, that none of this is terribly surprising.  US wants help, Canada is asked to help, Harper government denies making decision, and may make late announcement without consulting military.  I was tempted to entitle this post: Same @#$$%$#%, Different Day.  Seemed a bit harsh. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rule #1 for Professors

Well, besides "don't blog about your department before tenure", the number one rule is treat the staff well.  Academics are not always be decent or strategic, so we need to remind our colleagues sometimes that the folks working with us should be and need to be treated well.

One consistency in my career from Oberlin to UCSD to UVM to TTU to McGill is that the secretaries, office managers, financial folks, and admin people have been terrific people.  They have helped arrange my classes (rooms, times), handled the add/drop processes, fixed my mistakes (grade changes), facilitated my reimbursements, set up meetings, helped set up talks and workshops, help my grad students with their job applications, and more. 

I am thinking about this today, as the long march to Ottawa proceeds. Today's event: the McGill poli sci staff are taking me out for drinks to mark my departure.  While there has been a heap of turnover and shrinkage (budget cuts) in the McGill staff over the past decade, they have always been incredibly helpful, amazingly cheerful, and very sweet people. 

Their role as the heart of the department became more obvious by their absence during last fall's strike.  What I mean by this is that the department office was no longer full of cheerful people who laughed at my jokes and made fun of me.

Academics tend to forget that these people exist in a very different world: they do not control what they do, they do not control when they do it, they actually do have a chain of command, and they don't have tenure.  Well, maybe they have job security (depends on the union/university).  Academics range in social skills and expectations so the staff frequently get dumped with last minute work that really is not their job.  While I disagreed with their strike demands last fall, I understood why they would feel under-appreciated.

I should be buying them beer today.  Alas, I will just have to accept the beers they give me instead.

Tuition and Loans

While I have railed against the students of Quebec for over-reacting to the increases in tuition, I want to be clear that the American system right now is mighty messed up with the cost of loans about to skyrocket thanks to the "enlightened" Republicans.

Thanks to these guys for putting things into perspective:

The Purposes of Comprehensive Exams

There is a thread at poli sci job rumors on comprehensive exams--what is the point: to haze or to train?  my answer is: yes.  That is, there are several purposes for having comprehensive exams:
  1. Most obviously, it is a painful hurdle along the way to a PhD.  Some students do fail, and others quit as they look towards the exams.  So, the exams do have some role in selecting who moves on, even if in most departments failure is rare.  
  2. It is diagnostic--not just in the sense of figuring out who should leave the program, but also what folks might need to do to improve their comprehension and address their weaknesses.  The oral component, if one your department has one, is good practice for later on when the stakes are higher: job interviews.
  3. The old saw is mostly correct--you will never have a better view of the entire field than at that moment in time when one is taking the comps.  The exam forces one to read beyond one's interests and inclinations and to try to figure out how the various conversations speak to each other. 
    1. The analogy I always use is sport.  When you first step on to a field or court, the movement of the players is so very confusing that you do not know anyone's roles and where you fit.  The more you play (read), the more you understand why everyone is where they are on the field, where they will be, and where you fit.  
    2. Once you prof-ing, you will not have the time or incentive to be well-read across the field--just in your areas of research and a bit beyond.  At that moment in grad school, you have one and only one job (aside from perhaps some RA/TA work): passing the exam.  I have enumerated elsewhere the many tasks profs must do--being up in the literature especially in another field is just down the list.
  4.  The process may cause one to learn of literature that might be handy for one's research.  I had my dissertation question pretty much in sight when I was preparing for my comparative comp, so I focused part of my reading for that exam on the literature on ethnic conflict, an area that I had previously studied much.  It not only helped me develop my answer to my dissertation question but ultimately shaped the next ten years or so of my research.  While that is just my experience, I do think think that I have observed students growing a bit and moving beyond their previous stances because the comps pushed them to read stuff that they would have otherwise skipped.
I am sure there are other benefits to the exams.  Yes, the process is unpleasant, but it it is not pure sadism.  Indeed, they are just another thing we have to grade, and we tend to prefer to grade less rather than more.  Oral comps are un-fun for profs, especially if their colleagues end up speechifying or ask questions that they themselves cannot answer.  While path dependence and inertia may cause these exams to stick around, I am ok with that.  I also do understand why students going through the process may think otherwise.*
* Much of this depends on one's department.  I had a great set of colleagues in grad school, and we helped each other as we went through it.  In other places, where the students see each other as competitors rather than collaborators, the exams are particularly painful.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Civil-Military Relations of Footwear

I have never really paid attention to shoes, my own or those of the opposite sex.  But the past year has taught me that one form of footwear seems to be most important: boots.  Boots on the ground vs no boots on the ground.  Politicians making promises about no boots on the ground were all the rage last year at this time--that the US, Canada, and the rest of NATO would meet the language of non-occupation in the UN resolution governing the Libyan intervention by not putting any boots on the ground.

What is lovely about this is that we now have essentially termed all ground-pounders (soldiers, marines) as a form of footwear.  The irony is that these boots are made for, well, not walking in peace-keeping missions and actually draw a line in the sand (sorry, cannot help myself) between the less risky forms of intervention--naval embargoes, no fly zones, air strikes--and ground combat.

Of course, the idea of no boots on the ground would then set a clear distinction, right?  Oh, but the Brits and the French (and perhaps the uncharacteristically quieter Americans) taught us a lesson in Libya: Special Operations Forces do not wear boots.  Or at least, our image of them as bare-footed ninjas (thanks @cdacdai for that) or perhaps their use of secret sauce makes them an acceptable exception.  Boots we cannot see or hear do not count against the "no boots on the ground" promise.  Of course, that is one of the key reasons to use SOF--to cut corners in existing promises, regulations and even legislation.  In Afghanistan, more than a few countries had SOF doing what their caveated conventional forces could not do.

Why the focus on the bare-footed folks tonight?  Because the US has asked the Aussies and Canadians to stick around in Afghanistan past 2014 in a military capacity, something that the Canadians have foresworn.  But the US request is chock full of guile--asking these two allies to deploy SOF.  In the Canadian case, as my twitter-conversation partner Phil Lagassé is tweeting now, there are different norms for parliamentary involvement in deployments.  With large conventional forces, there is a contested norm about submitting to parliament such decisions.  With small SOF, there is not--they can come and go as they please.  With the parliamentarians on the defence committee lacking security clearnances, the SOF and their management by the Minister of National Defence are even more invisible than the latest cloak of invisibility.

It will be interesting to see what Stephen Harper decides.  Given the minimal risks (especially if these boots are only for training Afghans), that his current majority continues, and that Canadian customs and parliamentary limitations means that he can control news about the SOF pretty damned tightly, my guess is that Harper goes ahead with the US request.

On a related note, I had the chance to go to Afghanistan in June but had to say no due to a travel moratorium as we prepare the big move to Ottawa.  It would have been nice to see the contrast between 2007 and 2012 but perhaps another time.